Restructuring of public services challenges union demarcation lines

Restructuring of Austria’s public services (eg through privatisation and liberalisation) has changed industrial relations in the organisations concerned, normally replacing state regulation of employment conditions with private sector-style collective bargaining. This shift to 'quasi-private' employment relations has challenged the traditionally clear-cut demarcation lines between the membership domains of the unions affiliated to the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB), and in some cases resulted in inter-union competition for members. A recent demarcation dispute has occurred at the Austro Control air traffic control company.

The Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) enjoys a de facto monopoly of trade union representation, and Austrian trade unionism is thus characterised by a notably high degree of unity and coherence. ÖGB is currently divided into 13 member unions which together cover all branches of the economy. Their membership domains are, in general, complementary, though not in the strict sense that only one union always covers any given sector or company. In the private sector, six blue-collar workers' unions and one white-collar union coexist. Furthermore, there are two unions which represent both blue- and white-collar workers - in the arts, media, sports and liberal professions and in the printing, journalism and paper industry respectively. The pattern of union representation in the public sector mirrors the structure of the employing public authorities. Accordingly, there are separate unions for central and regional government and for local government. Separate unions also exist for former public enterprises - ie postal services and telecommunications companies and the Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen, ÖBB) - which are undergoing a transition period due to liberalisation and privatisation.

Although ÖGB’s member unions are, from a formal point of view, not independent organisations but subunits of ÖGB, in practice the private sector unions negotiate autonomously and conclude collective agreements. However, the unions representing public employees are excluded from the right to collective bargaining: instead, employment relations are fixed by law. However, in reality, de facto negotiations between the authorities and the relevant unions take place (AT0204202F). These negotiations comprise all matters relating to pay and employment conditions in a way similar to collective bargaining.

Restructuring challenges industrial relations

From the late 1980s onwards, public services have undergone a process of restructuring which has changed the employment relationship and, to an even greater extent, industrial relations. Depending on the type of services, this restructuring process has taken several forms: the opening up of the market for former monopoly public services (ie liberalisation); the sale of public businesses (privatisation); and transfer from the status of a public authority to the status of a private-law company (known as Ausgliederung). This has led to quasi-private, 'hybrid' employment relations, since the civil servants who were appointed before restructuring of their public service organisation have maintained their public-law employment status, while new employees are hired under a private-law contract of employment. Industrial relations in these restructured organisations, however, are handled on the basis of the private sector model. Most importantly, this means that the relevant laws on restructuring equipped these organisations with the right to bargain.

Trade union representation

The fact that in the public services civil servants now co-exist with private-law employees, along with the transformation of industrial relations, has blurred the traditional membership demarcation among ÖGB’s member unions and thus threatens to create competition for members. On one hand, the public sector unions that traditionally cover the restructured organisations maintain their claim to represent any of their employees, even under the new regime of collective bargaining. On the other hand, the private sector unions into whose domains these organisations fall, in terms of the type of business activities they conduct, may be tempted to seek to represent these organisations' employees. For instance, the Union of Salaried Employees (Gewerkschaft der Privatangestellten, GPA), which represents white-collar employees across the entire private sector, has successfully entered the original domain of the Union of Post and Telecommunications Employees (Gewerkschaft der Post- und Fernmeldebediensteten, GPF). The two unions ultimately agreed to negotiate jointly with the employers' side - ie the relevant organisation of the Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreichs, WKÖ) - with the result that the first ever collective agreement for the posts and telecommunications sector was jointly concluded in 1997 (AT0203202F). The most recent case of such demarcation problems concerns Austro Control.

The case of Austro Control

A specific case of representational conflict between two unions has recently been settled in the civil aviation sector. Austro Control is responsible for all air traffic control in Austria. It is fully owned by the state, but in 1994 was transferred to private-law company status. Before 1994, the company was an authority (the Bundesamt für Zivilluftfahrt) which was a subdivision of the former Ministry for Traffic Affairs. This state agency was equipped with the right to collective bargaining in 1968, when almost all of its 1,000-plus employees opted for a private-law employment relationship even though the employer was a public authority. At the time, this was a very special arrangement, since – as outlined above – the public sector is, in principle, excluded from the right to collective bargaining. This arrangement ended in 1994 when the state’s authority was transferred to a private-law company, Austro Control, on which the right to bargain was conferred.

This restructuring prompted the blue-collar Commerce and Transport Union (Gewerkschaft Handel, Transport, Verkehr, HTV) to recruit Austro Control’s air traffic controllers - the highest qualified and best paid employee group at Austro Control, making up about one third of its 970-strong workforce. It appears that, given their exceptional bargaining power, arising from the crucial task they perform, the controllers no longer appreciated the united and solidaristic interest representation provided by the Union of Post and Telecommunications Employees (GPF), whose membership domain includes Austro Control. Hence, in 2002 almost all the air traffic controllers switched to HTV, which had promised to represent them in a more particular way. However, this was prevented by intervention from ÖGB itself. Fearing a damaging split among Austro Control’s staff and a precedent for further tendencies towards separate representation of specific groups, thus questioning ÖGB’s unity and coherence, ÖGB ordered the two unions involved to establish a joint negotiating team for future bargaining. This joint team concluded a single collective agreement for all employees with the management of Austro Control in December 2002. Thus, HTV was able to establish its representative status vis-à-vis Austro Control, though it failed to realise its promise of a tougher bargaining policy in favour of its new air traffic controller members.

Commentary

The restructuring of the public service sector is forcing the actors on both sides of industry to adjust to the new conditions. Since the right to bargain has been conferred on the restructured companies themselves, new actors have emerged on the employer side. In the case of the unions, this restructuring has challenged their traditional demarcation lines. This has given rise to inter-union competition for members, even though all unions involved are under the umbrella of a relatively strong confederation, ÖGB. Nevertheless, the case of Austro Control suggests that ÖGB is strong enough to prevent this competition from bringing about a fragmentation of bargaining. At any rate, the intervention of HTV at Austro Control, which enticed a certain group of employees away from another union, has been regarded by most of the other unions and by ÖGB as unfair and lacking in solidarity. To prevent such 'particularistic' claims from indvidual membership groups, most unions tend to centralise and coordinate their strategies and bargaining policies across different branches and sectors. These efforts should result in a large-scale merger of five ÖGB affiliates scheduled for 2005 (AT0212202F). (Georg Adam, University of Vienna)

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